We Must Stop Pretending that the US is an Innocent Democracy
The United States government is all too familiar with coups and dictatorships…
In response to the attempted coup and riots at the capital on January 6th, 2021, many have touted the democratic ideals of the United States, asserting that US soil is innocent of coups and dictatorships. While this may be true for US soil, it is not true for US foreign policy. Despite touting ideals of democracy and freedom, the US has supported dictatorships and coups abroad in pursuit of its foreign policy interests. The perceived innocence of the US is false. The support of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile is illustrative of the undemocratic acts the US is willing to commit in pursuit of its own interests.
In the 1970s, the Nixon administration plotted the removal of Socialist leader Salvador Allende from the presidency of Chile. Allende, a democratically elected leader, was removed from the presidency halfway through his term in 1973 by a military coup that was supported by the US. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were convinced that Allende’s Communist ideologies, which tied him, in the eyes of the US, to the Soviet Union and Cuba, posed a threat to the foreign policy interests of the US. They believed a Marxist leader would help bring Soviet influence closer to America’s shores.
The importance of Latin America in US foreign policy can be traced to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. The doctrine essentially asserted that Latin America is the backyard of the United States and that any interference by Europe would be seen as a threat. In plotting to undermine a constitutionally elected leader and allying with the military dictatorship that followed, the Nixon administration acted in contradiction to US ideals of freedom and democracy that we see all over the news today. These undemocratic actions (rightfully so) provoked a rise in anti-American sentiments, especially in Latin America.
Allende proclaimed himself a Democratic Socialist, however in the eyes of the US, he was a Communist. We see this misperception made constantly with progressive leaders today. When Bernie Sanders ran for president, one of the most common arguments I heard against him was that he is too much of a Communist. At the height of the Cold War, Allende’s ideological ties to the USSR were enough for Nixon’s administration to view Allende’s government as the seedling of a new Cuba: a new Soviet satellite in the hemisphere that would threaten US security.
At the time of Allende’s inauguration in November of 1970, the world was stuck in a deeply bipolar state. Cold War tensions had led to the US blockade of Cuba and to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam having occurred just a few years before Allende’s presidency, in 1962 and 1968 respectively. Fearing that a Marxist state in Latin America would follow Cuba’s example, Allende became the Nixon administration’s top priority.
The Nixon administration’s efforts to undermine Allende were extensive. The US helped fund $250,000 that was used to buy votes from the Chilean Congress to elect Eduardo Frei instead of Salvador Allende.³ The act of buying votes from Congress alone showed that the US was willing to undermine democracy in order to achieve its goals. Despite the US’s illegal attempts to influence the election, Allende became president in November of 1970. The US funded media outlets that opposed Allende, notably “El Mercurio.”⁵ Meanwhile, the US did its best to use its economic assets to put pressure on the Chilean government, effectively engaging in economic warfare. Nixon had stated that it was their goal to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” ³ and encouraged other countries, especially Latin American ones, to do the same.⁴ When Allende refused to bend to American economic pressure, the US established contacts with supporters of a coup d’etat in the Chilean Armed Forces through which they supplied guns, grenades, and advisory as well as financial support.² The US did not want another Cuba in Latin America.
The US was willing to do anything — even undermine a democratically elected leader — to avoid having a Marxist leader in Chile. Augusto Pinochet became the dictator of Chile after the successful coup d’etat took power, and his dictatorship became an ally of the US. Allende’s policies were blamed for the inflation and wealth inequality faced by the country despite the fact that the US was using its entire economic arsenal to destroy the country’s economy. Pinochet remained in office until 1990 despite electoral disapproval, and he has since been accused of torture and thwarting human rights prosecutions.¹ The support of a dictatorship over that of a democratically elected leader resulted in anti-American sentiments throughout Latin America.³ Despite this, for Nixon’s administration, in the bipolar world of the Cold War, any leader was better than a Marxist leader.⁶
Chile is not the only victim of the ideological imperialism of the United States. During the Cold War, the US supported dictators in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, to name a few. With this precedent, the decision to undermine Allende’s leadership was not a surprising one, as the US had and would make the same decision in other states during the Cold War. We often view the Cold War as a time of intense bipolarity that we have overcome. In many ways, this is true. However, today we face a different type of polarity. At a time when many are pushing for progressive and socialist policies, nationalism and xenophobia are ever-present and can be seen in many countries today.
Now is the time to look back at history and learn from it. In its efforts to take down a communist president, the US singlehandedly implemented exactly the type of government it was supposedly trying to avoid - a tyrannical dictatorship. Allende stood for democracy. His socialist policies were misunderstood, and this misunderstanding was deadly. This misperception and extremism is all too familiar. Many rioters at the capital on January 6th claimed they were fighting for democracy and freedom when in reality, their actions couldn’t be more undemocratic. Since January 6th, many have falsely lauded the democratic innocence of the United States. These assertions of US innocence is harmful because they attempt to erase the true history of US foreign policy, where democracy was not the ultimate goal.
- “Augusto Pinochet.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Augusto-Pinochet
- Cable Transmissions on Coup Plotting. Central Intelligence Agency, October 18, 1970. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/docs/doc27.pdf. Accessed 16 April 2019
- Hanhimäki, Jussi M. The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Web.
- National Security Decision Memorandum 93: Policy Towards Chile. National Security Council, November 9, 1970. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/docs/doc09.pdf.
- Report of Chilean Task Force Activities. Central Intelligence Agency, 18 November 1970. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/docs/doc01.pdf.
- Spanier, John W., and Hook, Steven W. American Foreign Policy since World War II. 21st ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2019. Print.
This article has been adapted and was originally written for my US Foreign Policy Class on April 18th, 2019.